In 1990, when I was a sophomore at Tufts University, I made the very difficult decision to take a year-long break from school. My college experience had gotten off to a rocky start, and my first three semesters were pretty tumultuous, to say the least. When I returned that following spring, I was, in many ways, a very different person from the young woman who had begun college two and a half years earlier. I was just starting to question my sexuality. I was getting turned on to feminism, and I was toying with the idea of majoring in Women’s Studies (much to the initial chagrin of my parents). And, ironically, I realized that I had almost no close female friends. That, I decided, needed to change – and, upon my return, I started seeking out women’s spaces on campus.
What were my options? There was the Women’s Collective (which sounded kind of hippie to me, to be honest). There was one women’s only dormitory (which was actually one of the nicest housing options on campus). There was a pretty active lesbian and gay group. And there were various Division III women’s athletic teams (Division III being code for “if you have ANY athletic ability, you’ll probably get on the team”). None of those options appealed to me. I wasn’t really a “women’s collective” kind of gal (at least, not initially when I returned to school). I wanted to meet other women, but I didn’t necessarily want to live 24/7 with other women exclusively. I wasn’t even close to the point of clarifying my sexual identity and coming out, so the lesbian and gay group got nixed. And women’s athletics – well, let’s just say that I. Am. Not. Athletic.
So what did I do? I pledged a sorority.
There. I said it.
Saying it feels like coming out, in some ways – because most people don’t expect queer women to be in sororities. Or for sorority girls to be queer, for that matter. To be fair, it is an unexpected combination – for very good reasons. A 2002 survey of 692 college students revealed that, among other things, attending a college or university that boasts an active Greek system is strongly correlated with a lack of acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. And a 2005 study titled “An Exploratory Study of the Experiences of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Fraternity and Sorority Members Revisited” showed that, among the 500+ self-identified LGB fraternity and sorority members who participated, over 70% experienced attitudes and behaviors within their chapter that were considered to be homophobic and/or heterosexist. If you’re looking for a safe space to explore your sexuality, sororities aren’t typically the first option to come to mind.
On top of that, sororities are thought to be rather elitist (considering how much it costs to join many of them) and potentially racist (given the rise of the Black sorority movement). And the icing on the cake? Sororities, according to a 2007 study published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, tend to be breeding grounds for body hatred and eating disorders. (Pardon the cake expression.)
Given all those strikes against the Greek system, why on earth did I join a sorority? Especially given my budding political awakening and social activism?
It kind of went like this: I met a woman at a social gathering. We struck up a conversation, focusing mostly on feminism and gender issues. She had taken several Women’s Studies courses, and was considering minoring in Women’s Studies (a lofty goal, considering that she was in the highly rigorous electrical engineering program). I told her that I had just returned to Tufts after a year-long hiatus, and was still trying to find my sea legs. “Have you thought about joining a sorority?” she asked. Then she laughed. “I know it might sound weird, because I don’t look like your typical sorority girl. But the sorority I belong to is different.”
The sorority she belonged to, as it turns out, was Phi Sigma Sigma. And it was different. There was a woman in that group who was openly bisexual. There were several women who came from poor, working-class, or otherwise economically challenged backgrounds – possibly because Phi Sigma Sigma was reasonably cheap to join. From the perspective of the other sororities on campus, Phi Sigma Sigma was the black sheep of our campus Greek system. “We’re the anti-sorority sorority,” we’d say, referring to the fact that, under most circumstances, most of us would have never dreamed of joining a sorority.
But we did. And for me, it was perfect. It was a women’s social organization that wasn’t based in politics – and yet, it created a safe space to wrestle with a broad scope of political issues. Very shortly after joining my sorority, I came out as a rampant feminist – and, despite the fact that not everyone agreed with all of my views, I was met with unconditional acceptance. I attended my first march and rally against rape and sexual assault with two of my sorority sisters. I co-taught a freshman seminar with one of my sisters on gender in contemporary film. Shortly before I graduated from college, I told a few of my sisters (as my voice was shaking nervously) that I was bisexual. They responded with – you guessed it – unconditional acceptance. And a few weeks later, a couple of my sisters accompanied me to my first Pride event.
I realize that my experience may well be unique. I’m not naive – I know that many sororities (and, even more so, fraternities) are icy-cold climates for sexual and gender minorities. To some extent, that’s changing. For example, an organization called Lambda 10 – otherwise known as the National Clearinghouse for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Fraternity & Sorority Issues – was created specifically to heighten visibility of sexual and gender minorities in the Greek system. A few LGBTQ fraternities and sororities have formed (the first being the Delta Lambda Phi fraternity), and, increasingly, more traditional fraternities and sororities are identifying themselves as LGBTQ-friendly.
As oppressed people, we understand the power of finding and creating community. It gives us strength, healing, power, solace, and comfort – and it allows us to see ourselves reflected in others. And, as we all know, many of us find community in creative and unexpected places.